3 Little-Known Facts about “Certified Organic,” and a New Paradigm
Imagine a wide, flat field stretching off to the horizon in every direction. Bare dirt, light brown, dusty, with a slight ammonia reek. There’s an enormous tractor strafing back and forth over the land, coughing diesel fumes, spraying a chemical called copper sulfate, designed to kill unwanted fungi.
A few months later, grain will be harvested from this field, and then trucked or shipped to a granary, and then trucked or shipped again to a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), and then poured into a long tube that terminates in buckets in pens that that are one foot long and one foot wide. That’s about twice the size of your head. In that cage sits a white-feathered chicken, who has been there for most of her life, hardly able to move, even if her legs could support the oversize bulk of her breast. She’s never, ever turned around. She just eats.
Then that chicken’s breast, her unused wings, and her drumsticks are cut up and packaged by undocumented immigrants recruited and brought in from Nicaragua. Workers who cut for hours and hours and hours in a row, who are often denied bathroom breaks, and who are shit-outta-luck if they get injured on the job.
Now picture those pieces of chicken, shrink-wrapped and stacked on a shelf in the grocery store, labeled Organic, $7/pound.
Now, answer in your mind: why do you eat organic food?
Do you care so much about your family’s health that you pay a little more to avoid the poisons used in “conventional” agriculture? Do you want to minimize the harm done to bees and to ocean life from insecticides, erosion, and fertilizer runoff? Do you want to eat food grown with fairness and respect for every human and animal involved?
Well, you can do all of these things. In fact, you should. They are all worth paying extra for. But unfortunately, buying food marked with a “Certified Organic” sticker isn’t a surefire way to do so. Let’s unearth three general things that most people don’t know about “Certified Organic,” and then I’ll describe how you can find real, good, healthy food that actually helps heal the earth and your body, rather than simply not harming it.
One caveat, before the list: these three facts describe “Certified Organic” standards. There are thousands of responsible organic farms (and thousands of farms not even certified as organic) that go beyond the standards, and are therefore not described by these facts.
1. “Certified Organic” allows poisons.
There is a bacteria called Bacillus thurengiensis (called Bt) that is poisonous to many insects, including beautiful monarch butterflies. It occurs naturally in tiny amounts that do not cause very much harm to monarchs and other important pollinators. Another compound, called Rotenone, is derived from roots and seeds of several common plants. In concentrated amounts, Rotenone is highly toxic to fish, and can cause rats to develop the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease.
It’s safe to say that Bt and Rotenone are both poisons. And yet, organic farmers are allowed to spray them on their crops, because they are both derived from natural sources. The problem, of course, is that these poisons are created and sprayed in much, much higher concentrations than they would ever be found in a natural ecosystem. Even natural compounds, when out of balance, can damage soil, animals, and our bodies.
2. “Certified Organic” allows animal cruelty.
Remember the chicken, above, who was packed into a one-square-foot cage? Once she became food, she was certified organic. Can you imagine her life? Is the system that forces her to live that way one that you want to support, or one that you’d want to call “organic?” The same problems apply to pigs, where the amount of space per animal that organic standards require is “actually less than the total indoor area that the National Pork Board requires for its non-organic, indoor, intensively raised pigs.” (Source)
These low standards are in place despite the National Organic Program’s official statement that: “The requirements… meet or exceed many private animal welfare certification standards.” (Source)
What does that say about most certification standards, in general?
3. “Certified Organic” allows for tillage, monocultures, and extensive transport, all of which degrades our land and harms our climate.
The broad, flat field I described at the beginning of this piece would never exist in a natural ecosystem. Besides extreme deserts (which are growing, around the world, partly because of soil tillage), no natural environments have bare soil exposed to the sky, much less bare soil that gets tilled.
Tilling soil is cutting it up, stirring it, and mixing it, in order to get rid of weeds and prepare the soil for seeds. This process is a major emitter of carbon dioxide. Why? Because soil is alive. Microscopic creatures like fungi, bacteria, and nematodes are constantly eating, excreting, and dying, in a cycle that makes mineral nutrients available for plants and stores carbon in solid form within the soil. When soil is tilled, billions and billions of these microbes are killed. The carbon that makes up the microbes’ bodies binds with oxygen to form carbon dioxide, which is the planet’s most prevalent greenhouse gas.
Tillage also decreases the water-holding capacity of the soil and causes erosion, and leaching of nutrients.
Another thing you never see in any natural system is a field filled with just one single type of plant: this is called a monoculture. Monocultures create imbalances in soil minerals, and encourages pests and weed outbreaks, which must then be battled by poisons like rotenone, Bt, and copper sulfate (or, in the case of conventional farming, much nastier chemicals such as glyphosate (RoundUp) and neonicotinoids). Organic farms are currently allowed to grow monocultures across thousands of acres.
From these vast monocultures, organic food can then be trucked or shipped all the way across the country and back, burning fossil fuel and emitting still more carbon, on its way from field to market to plate.
A New Paradigm
Each of the three problems listed above are symptoms of a larger issue that haunts “Certified Organic” agriculture, particularly at the industrial level. This larger issue is that most organic farms still operate within the same destructive paradigm as “conventional” chemical agriculture: a paradigm that works to violently control natural processes, in order to maximize production quantities at all ecological, nutritional, and ethical costs.
So the “Certified Organic” sticker does not necessarily help you find the best food for your family and our world. What does that mean, for you? Should you figure that organic food is “just as bad” as “conventional” food, and just give up on ever eating real, healthy food again? The simple answer is: no, you should not give up. There is a different possible paradigm for agriculture that is growing from the grassroots up, a paradigm that is producing real, healthy food for families like yours.
Despite the low standards for organic certification, not all organic food is grown in destructive ways. In fact, we at Spoon Full Farm plan to get certified as organic during the next couple of years. We have to play the game, too, for now. Even after we are certified, though, we’re going to keep telling our story and sharing our farm practices, because we want to do much more than clear the low bar for organic certification. We are loyal to soil.
How do you know that you can be absolutely, positively sure about our healthful, humane, whole-earth farming practices? Because you can come visit us any time. You can ask us about our practices, and we’ll answer you straight. And you can taste the food that we grow. People who eat our produce say that there’s something different about it, something extra vital and delicious. That’s probably the health of the soil, shining through in the food that grows up out of it.
Our vision is a food system where those who eat the food know those who grow the food, and know how the food is grown, so that there is no need for standards or certification. On top of that, all food will be grown using whole-earth farming practices that are not only sustainable, but actually regenerative for our soil and our environment. All food will be grown under a paradigm that seeks to bolster the fertile, abundant, diverse flourishing of natural systems, producing lots of healthy food all the while. That’s the new paradigm we need, a paradigm that goes beyond a certification sticker.
Perhaps that vision will become reality in twenty years, or a hundred years, or never. In any case, we work towards that vision with every seed we plant, every cow we move through our lush pastures, and every ripe tomato we pick off the glorious vine. And the best part? You can be a part of this vision becoming a reality. You can feed yourself and your family local food from farmers whose practices you know and understand to be vital and healthy for our world. So shop at the farmers market, sign up for a CSA, and find restaurants that source beautiful local food. Join the new food paradigm. It’s delicious.
Visit our “Healing Power of Whole Earth Farming” page to learn more about how our farm practices foster soil health, biodiversity, and climate healing.